A Rave in the Middle of a Bullfight

Super DJ Wally Callerio gets his deep-house groove on

Wally Callerio credits pain. In just his second football game for Edison High School, Callerio was running the ball when a cornerback from archrival Huntington Beach High dove for his knee. The blow knocked Callerio to the ground. His coach demanded he run off the pain. Impossible: Callerio's kneecap was shattered.

That was the moment Callerio said goodbye to football forever—and perhaps to being a regular guy as well. Callerio now walks with no trouble, but he says that incapacitating injury marked his first, er, step onto the slippery slope of deep house.

Callerio is one of just a handful of capable, talented DJ/producers in Orange County working on deep house. Though he hasn't been heard from much since he scored a hit with his 1998 single "Déjà Vu/Whispers," Callerio is plotting his comeback. He makes his first move this month with the release of the single "Juan Carlos' Groove/Maria's Groove." He'll follow that in December with "The Affair/Smile." Both are issued on Callerio's own Dufflebag Records.

These singles come at a price. He's emerging from a yearlong period of near-perfect isolation during which he dumped many of his responsibilities for Dufflebag in favor of marathon sessions in his Huntington Beach studio searching for that perfect house beat.

The self-imposed isolation didn't result in a Brian Wilson-like meltdown of massive weight gain and madness—Callerio still looks trim in his regular-guy uniform of jeans, T-shirt and baseball cap. But something changed, says DJ Cocoe, a close friend. "He got really serious this year. He got focused."

Focus is crucial in house. Though house DJs never become stars like big-beat dude Fatboy Slim or even trance legend Paul Oakenfold—a house "hit" is selling a mere 3,000 singles—the competition to push the envelope and destroy the genre's boundaries is intense. Each week, between 60 and 100 house records are released; spinning last week's sounds simply isn't permitted.

Callerio knows this, and it made him . . . well, uneasy.

"You can't keep up. You can do great for a month, and then your music will be cycled out," admits Callerio.

The 27-year-old hopes his new singles will earn him the same dance-floor acclaim he had when the star DJs of house—Derrick Carter, Mark Farina and Doc Martin—spun "Déjà Vu/Whispers" for house fiends all over the world. Callerio's making no predictions, but so far, the singles have gotten high marks from house cats like Jamie Thinnes, co-owner of OC's other deep-house label, Seasons Recordings. "He's matured," Thinnes says. "The music's tightened up."

That comes through on "Juan Carlos' Groove/Maria's Groove," which is dedicated to Callerio's Argentine immigrant parents. The track sounds like a rave going off in the middle of a bullfight. Feisty salsa horns and Latin guitar riffs spar with exotic house rhythms set to a high-hat shuffle and the thump of a bass drum. "The Affair/Smile" could be the soundtrack to an urbane French sex comedy, the laughs being supplied by a stoic male voice (actually Callerio's apartment mate, Jarvis Soeda) that implores, "Come with me/Let's get sneaky/I know you want to/We'll get freaky." The reply is that of a flirty female voice (another apartment mate, Sandra Tupinio), who says, "I can't/He's here/Mmmm/Let's go!" This puckish exchange—and the question "Do they get it on?"—is set to a mix of stuttering beats, low bass drums and a light-funk bass riff.

Can you dance to it? Absolutely. But house is different from other DJ music. The bass lines, the trumpet blasts, the congas and the other instruments heard on Callerio's records and other deep-house vinyl are made by living, breathing people. It's a unique mix of the organic and the mechanical, the perfect cyborg music—exotic enough to take you to a different place but human enough to be sensual.

Callerio hopes the singles will sell well, not just for the satisfaction of producing popular, cool music, but also for the prospect of securing more DJ jobs. The label "is more of a promotional tool than a moneymaking tool," says Callerio. He usually breaks even on the $4,500 he typically spends to press 2,000 records.

(If you're wondering about the money, a well-regarded DJ like Callerio can make around $800 for one night of spinning records. Callerio supports himself by deejaying at clubs and megaraves like Audiotistic and How Sweet It Is.)

But Callerio insists pain, not money, brought him to deejaying. He bought his first turntable to relieve the boredom of invalid life after that high school football injury. He sped through Top 40 and hip-hop and discovered dance music at an early '90s rave, where the DJs were playing music Callerio had never heard before.

"I thought these kids were teaching people about music that's never advertised on the radio. That's what drew me in," he says. By 1994, Callerio had fallen in love with house, learning the basics of his art by screwing around in studios. A few years later, eager to produce his own records but terrified by the idea of trying to sell himself to a record label, he started Dufflebag. He's still the only employee: he does all the recording, all the selling to retail shops, and all the promoting by sending his music to superstar DJs.

Yet his story may have an element of beginner's luck. His other Dufflebag releases—two of his own singles and nine of other DJ/producers—have done well, but they didn't come close to being hits. That stings Callerio, but it takes second place to the pure pleasure of creating that exotic, jazzy house beat. "After taking time off, I had to rediscover the roots of what I love," he says. A brilliant excuse for isolating yourself in a studio for a year—the best reason, really, for becoming a mad scientist/DJ.

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